Good Friday Year A: Is 52:13-53:12; Ps 22; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; Jn 18:1-19:42
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Friday, April 14, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
One of the hardest questions I ever get asked is how to understand the cross. Not because I don’t have an answer, but because that answer when spoken in words never feels adequate. The cross is an experience, not a theological reflection or debate. The answer to understanding the cross comes in the scenes of sorrow and suffering of one’s life. It is in the pictures on the nightly news of people young and old suffering from chemical weapons attacks. It is in the halls of hospitals when one hears the howling of a mother who has just lost her child. It is in the holes punctured into our souls when our spouse dies. The cross is not a question that can be answered or even debated; the cross is only understood when experienced. What is the cross? It is our despair, our horrific suffering, our Bloody Sundays, 9/11s, Columbines, it is our loss of a child or a spouse or a parent, it is our times of deep suffering; but more than that, it is our vulnerability.
After 9/11, Bishop Desmond Tutu offered this reflection on why the events were so devastating to so many people across the country and around the world, “One thing that came out of 9/11 was realizing you are vulnerable and in the moment you don’t know how to handle that because you are living under the illusion of being invincible. Vulnerability is the essence of the Christian world. As creatures we are fragile. The only one who is invincible is God.” The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, in a lecture the day after 9/11, said this about vulnerability, “Apprehension of death and the experience of radical vulnerability are the two foundations of any pastoral ministry. It is only when you have faced your own death, experienced your own mortality, been through that kind of suffering experience, that kind of terrible, frightful experience, that you are capable of understanding the pain and suffering of others.” So we begin to understand the cross as we remember and experience our own moments of suffering and vulnerability.
Why must God be vulnerable? Why is this the path to eternal salvation? My go-to elevator speech answer is usually, “It’s a mystery!” And in some ways, I would do well to stop right there. Faith is grounded in mystery and yet, I think there is a little more to this mystery than simply claiming it as such.
When the towers came down on 9/11, the whole country stopped. We all turned on our televisions to watch the horrific scenes. The stock market closed for the rest of that week. At Trinity Wall Street, after the planes entered the towers but before the towers collapsed, priests had changed into vestments and begun impromptu liturgies—prayers and hymns were sung. In the midst of singing “O God our help in ages past”, the second tower fell. The noise was tremendous and the vibration from the collapse actually shifted people in their pews. When all had settled down, the priest began to sing the hymn from where they had left off, the second verse that includes the words, “a shelter from the stormy past.” That is powerful stuff. A sign, if you will, of God’s presence. Later on, when people would recall the evil they attributed to that day, the evil they felt more than they felt God, it would be these small signs that would remind them God was present and not just in liturgy, but when the singing and praying was over, they found God in one another as they cared for one another throughout the process of recovery.
We all know where we were that fateful day. We tell the story of being stuck in airports or watching it on tv, of coming to St. John’s each day that week at noon to pray. New Yorkers tell that story too. Its too horrific not too. We flee from Calvary and when we get home and our loved ones ask us, “How was your day?” We tell the story, over and over again as we examine our own vulnerability. I think that’s why the Passion Narrative is the first part of the Gospel story to be written down. People wanted to tell the story before it was forgotten—the experience had been so awful they had to tell one another over and over again what they had witnessed.
We celebrate that fateful event every Sunday—“He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” We are a religion of incarnation. Our liturgy combines word and symbol, embodying in physical terms the Gospel that speaks deeply to us in our pain and grief and in our joys and celebrations. The words of the Eucharistic Prayer remind us that the incarnate God became vulnerable just as we are. So when we experience challenges and hardships in our lives, we know that good can come from it even if we cannot see how, because we know that God incarnate entered into a terrible thing and brought good out of it. That is what the cross really is.
Evil is real. Suffering is real. Vulnerability is real. And God knows that because God has experienced that. God does not bring closure to the experience of evil, suffering, grief, and sorrow—because there is no closure to these things. Instead God brings us comfort. We are drawn to Christ on the cross because in that experience we find one who knows what we’ve experienced, one who has been vulnerable, one who has lost. We know Good Friday; we can talk about it and write about it because we know death. We don’t have to like it but we know it. We see it today in the veiled crosses and angels. We know it by the holes it leaves inside us—holes that can never be filled but we hope can be scabbed over. We feel it as the tears leak from our eyes and drip off our noses. We know Good Friday because in the midst of our tragedies, in the midst of our moments of vulnerability, when we are sitting in the darkness of that tomb, the light breaks through and brings us hope. Amen.